Yet Another Attempt at Digital Books

I’ve been thinking about digital books a lot lately. Perhaps it’s because I was on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies that was devoted to the future of Slavic library collections archives in the digital age. I’m also on the editorial board of a print-on-demand press ( that couldn’t exist if it weren’t for digital technology.

If you’ve listened to the Digital Campus podcast you know that I’m no fan of eBook readers. I suppose that if I’m going to read a “book” on a box, I’d rather have the .pdf file right on my laptop so I can have direct access to the text when, and if, I decide to use it in my research and writing. If the text sat on a separate box, using it in another way would be more cumbersome than seems worth it.

So I’ve been very interested, of course, in the Google Books project and have downloaded many versions of out of print and out of copyright books. And, I’ve been almost as interested in the various services that allow you order bound copies of those books like and and their Espresso Book Machine. These latter services, of course, provide just the opposite of a digital book — an analog book from a digital file. And my main complaint about the Google Books project is that it isn’t really a digital archive or library in the sense that one can tag content or manipulate it in any of the ways we are becoming familiar with in the Web 2.0 world. But, at least for now, Google is offering these book files for free.

I suppose that’s why I’m surprised to find that in the face of the growth of the free economy on the Internet, new projects keep springing up that are built on the old model of selling books — in this case .pdf file versions of books — at something like full price.  DiBiDo is a project of the German firm Questa.Soft GmbH and is, according to their website, an outgrowth of their Central and East European Online Library. For years I’ve flirted with asking our Library to subscribe tot he CEEOL service, because it would give me access to many of the important journals in my field that are published in Europe and, despite the relatively steep subscription rate, would be less expensive than asking the Library to subscribe to these journals.

But there is no way I’m going to be buying any books from DiBiDo. If I wanted to pay essentially full price for an academic book, I’d just purchase it via one of the major online sales portals like or via the used market online. But 25 Euros for a .pdf file? I don’t think so. They claim that most of their books are out of print and if that’s true, then I’d simply obtain them via interlibrary loan, use them, and return them. I’d love to have the .pdf file stored on my computer. But I suppose I’m a cheap date, because 25 Euros is just too much for a digital file.

My own view is that this approach to digital publishing is doomed and that before much longer we’re going to see the iTunes model take hold. And, I suspect, that the first company to offer is $1.00 digital book files will be none other than our good friends at Google.

3 thoughts on “Yet Another Attempt at Digital Books

  1. LAM

    I’m surprised by the pricing models of reference books. As a reference librarian, I spend a fair amount of time checking book catalogs to see what we should add to the collection. In many cases, electronic versions of reference books are priced at just a small discount off the print price. In a few–admittedly rare–cases, the electronic version is actually more expensive. Sometimes the electronic versions are sold as a yearly subscription based on the full-time enrollment of a school, as are databases. Of course, digital versions of reference works are often altogether different than PDFs, but the costs of creating and distributing an electronic version still can’t be anywhere close to the cost for a print version.

    I don’t know if the pricing model for reference books for academic libraries is just temporary because the market for electronic versions is still developing, or if it is a result the curious pricing model of library resources in general. I was surprised when I started working at a library, because so many resources–catalog software, archives software, electronic reference works, databases–are sold on a subscription model at fantastically high prices.

  2. Mills Post author

    I do wonder about the future of reference books. They are so expensive and have such a limited circulation that I have a hard time imagining them surviving much longer in their present form. Their is especially likely, I think, because so much of the information contained in these volumes is now reasonably readily available online.

    As for the Plastic Logic Reader, I have neither seen nor heard of it. If it combines the functionality of both an eBook reader and a computer, then I might be interested. What I really want is something like an eBook reader that can be used in my classes to do more than just access a text. If my students could also go to websites, work with databases, upload content to the class blog, interact with a classroom instant response system, etc., with their device, then I think that device would be a winner. Right now, the two devices that seem to hold the most promise in this regard are the iPhone and the Android phones. The screens are too small for me to think of as eBook readers, but probably that’s just my age showing…

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